Monday, April 2, 2012

Higher Education Costs & Incentives: Nobody Gets Rich Doing This

A substantial kerfuffle was set off a little over a week ago by David Levy's Washington Post op-ed, "Do college professors work hard enough?" For those of you who don't want to read the original, the punch line is pretty simple: his answer is "no". In writing this particular piece, Levy has joined a long line of folks raising this question and reaching this particular conclusion. That Levy has himself been a faculty member once upon a time makes this particular iteration a little more interesting - but not much.

The fact that he tries to address this in an op-ed is warning sign enough: no complex subject can be thoroughly answered in the 800 or so words of a typical op-ed article. Even if the paper is manifestly generous in granting 1000 words, that's still barely enough to raise a question - not nearly enough to explore it or answer it with any conviction.

A proper answer to the question would have to dig into the complexities of efficiency vs. effectiveness in teaching, the role of research, and the value of "service" as performed by faculty. These things vary so widely across both institutions and disciplines that trying to make generalizations, as Levy does, in a single page is almost worthless - especially as a guide to public policy.

But one of Levy's 'facts' bears bringing out, because it is a classic trope of the op-ed argument. He claims that 'senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000 annually'. This is true as far as it goes - but what does it really mean?

For the average American - even the average WaPo reader - that sounds like a lot of money. But 'senior faculty' status generally only comes after 20-25 years of labor, during which time the faculty member in question works very hard indeed and for far lower wages. Moreover, it is those 20-25 years when financial needs are likely to be greatest - those are the years that people get married and have & raise children. By the time that coveted 'senior status' rolls around, the kids are frequently out of the nest. Try raising a family on an assistant professor's salary sometime and you'll have a very different picture of the work/reward balance for your average faculty member.

Moreover, that $80 - $150k spread exists because of differences in fields. And those differences exist because of much broader market forces. Senior faculty make the bigger numbers only in business, engineering, and the sciences - fields in which, with much the same education and skill set, they could go into the private sector and make at least that much money if not more, and much earlier in their careers. You might read Levy's article and think that $150,000 gets you a tweed-jacketed English professor ruminating about Chaucer. In fact, it gets you a very bright engineer who could double his money working for Lockheed Martin, but who is instead teaching the next generation of engineers. At that rate, it's a bargain.

Having been a university administrator, Levy should know better. There are a host of cost factors that drive up the cost of higher education - not the least of which is that, with minimal incentives for efficiency, most universities have no idea what it really costs them to produce a graduate. Soaring faculty salaries are pretty low on this list. The brainpower and motivation to be a university professor, at least as measured by the level of education needed, are at least equal to those needed to be an engineer, a lawyer, a doctor - all of which are paid substantially more.

Ultimately, markets really do sort these things out. If enough people think higher education is too expensive to be worth it, they will seek alternatives - and universities will be forced to find ways to be more efficient. If enough people think that watching football live and in person is important, they will shell out significant money to freeze on hard seats in a stadium somewhere. And it isn't clear, given taxpayer subsidies for stadiums and similar things, which of those markets gets more public subsidy dollars. But you don't see the President, or the Washington Post, fulminating about how much Tim Tebow gets paid to be moved from team to team.

People ultimately choose career paths in life based on a combination of things: money, interest, skill set, geography, family. We live in a system where, if you don't like the result of your choices, sometimes you can change them - many do. Once you have a WaPo op-ed or two, maybe a book or a good resume, you can become a public speaker - which pays $5000 minimum for talking for an hour or two. Former university presidents rake in substantial sums in "consulting fees". Does David Levy partake in any of this? I have no idea. But I'm guessing that he probably doesn't want us looking at his compensation - why he feels he needs to attack the money made by his former employees is beyond me.

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